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A Note on the World Copyright Summit

The recent “World Copyright Summit,” sponsored by CISAC (the “International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers”) only came to my attention after the fact. Glancing through the program materials, I came across a framing editorial for the conference that begins this way:

Faced with an era of digital disruption, what would Michelangelo think of the ubiquity of his works available on the World Wide Web? How would Victor Hugo and Shakespeare cope with the most radical transformation the books industry faces since the creation of the printing press by Gutenberg? Would the great photography pioneer Nadar be preoccupied to see so many of his pictures on the internet? How would the Brothers Lumiere react to their works been posted on YouTube and mashed up with other material? And what would Beethoven make his hour-long symphonies shared on P2P networks via sub-standard sound quality MP3 files? And all of that without any of them being paid for their works!

On the one hand, these are great questions.  On the other hand, and disregarding for the moment the “rabbit-goes-into-the-hat” character of most of them, “who cares?” is a plausible response in each case. “Creators” are necessary, vital participants in communities of artistic practice and the business of art, but the sometimes relentless, needy “me! me! me!” character of their claims for recognition and compensation sometimes undermines their claims concerning the special character of art itself.  As Sting 0nce sang, if you love someone, set them free.  As Stallman and other might amend, free as in free speech, not free beer.  Separate arguments over compensation and reward from arguments over access and use.

To CISAC’s great credit, the entire program wasn’t dedicated to finding ways to maximize the creator pie.  Among other things, Michael Heller, author of Gridlock Economy, was a speaker.